Jesse Quinn Thornton

Jesse Quinn Thornton was born near Point Pleasant, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), on August 24, 1810, to Coats Thornton and Mary King. His father was a non-slaveholding farmer who moved the family to Champaign County, Ohio, in the early 1810s. Thornton grew up in a religious household, and his mother reportedly wanted him to become a minister. Instead, he traveled to London and spent three years studying law. He returned to America by the early 1830s and settled in Staunton, Virginia. He enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1833 to complete his legal education. He signed up for a moral philosophy course in 1834 but dropped it two months later because he “wish[ed] to devote his whole time to the study of law, which he considered of paramount importance.”

Thornton left UVA in 1835 and moved to Marion County, Missouri, where he established a legal practice. In 1836, he began editing a Democratic newspaper, and he endorsed Martin Van Buren in that year’s presidential election. He purchased at least one slave, and he helped organize an anti-abolition meeting in Palmyra in May 1836. Thornton drafted resolutions declaring abolition “incompatible with the peace, happiness and security of our citizens.” He vowed to “watch with vigilance, and oppose with vigor, the introduction and dissemination of abolition principles amongst us.” He urged the state legislature to “strip the abolitionist of his present legal impunity.” In the meantime, he warned, Missouri slaveholders would take matters into their own hands, relying on the “inherent, inalienable power, which resides in every people for the purpose of self-protection.” Soon afterward, Thornton and his neighbors signed a petition warning antislavery minister David Nelson to leave the state and never return. They viewed Nelson as an “object of distrust and of danger” and expressed their “abiding determination” to force him to flee.  

Thornton’s attitude toward slavery, however, reportedly began to change a year later, after an Illinois mob murdered abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. According to later accounts, Thornton “commented rather freely in his columns upon the occurrence,” drawing the “hostility of the pro-slavery community.” A large crowd reportedly surrounded Thornton’s building “with the expressed purpose of demolishing the office and lynching the editor.” Thornton, however, “armed himself and barricaded his office,” threatening “death to the first man who should attempt to enter the office unbidden.” After several tense moments, Thornton emerged and clarified his “position on the slavery question and the right of free speech,” and the crowd eventually dispersed.

On February 8, 1838, Thornton married Nancy M. Logue, a widowed teacher from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The couple had no children, but they were devoted to one another. A decade later, Thornton declared her his “best and most constant friend…the sharer of my joys and the soother of my sorrows, my cheerful companion in adversity and ill health, and the charm and ornament of [their] humble home.” They moved to Quincy, Illinois, around April 1841, reportedly because of Thornton’s budding opposition to slavery. As Thornton later explained, however, poor health prompted them to move to Oregon in 1846, “with the hope that its pure and invigorating climate, would restore this inestimable blessing.” They left Quincy on April 18, 1846, and joined a wagon train across the country’s western territory. They travelled with the Donner Party for several weeks before their paths diverged, and they arrived in Salt Creek, Oregon, on November 30. As Thornton recalled, the final stages of the voyage were “dreary beyond description,” and everything around them was “parched and arid.”

Thornton settled in Oregon City, and on February 20, 1847, he became Supreme Judge of the territory’s provisional government. He resigned eight months later and travelled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to officially organize the Oregon Territory. According to later accounts, Thornton worked to bar slavery from the territory, ensuring the “principal of the Wilmot proviso was incorporated in the act.” As Thornton explained, “there is no necessity for such an institution as slavery in this country [Oregon],” and “most of the immigrants who come here are educated to respect every human being’s rights.”

One congressman proposed bypassing the territorial stage altogether and admitting Oregon as a new state. Thornton adamantly objected, insisting that statehood would “crush [Oregon settlers] into the dust.” White residents, he explained, were “without commerce, without money, without roads, without jails, without court-houses, and without public buildings for the use of the provisional government.” As an organized territory, however, federal funding could promote infrastructure, trade, and settlement while protecting residents from Native Americans. Congress complied, organizing the Oregon Territory on August 14, 1848.

Thornton resumed his legal practice in Oregon, and by 1860, he owned $10,000 in real estate and $3,500 in personal property. He was a devout Methodist who joined the Oregon Bible Society and the Oregon Temperance Society and repeatedly petitioned lawmakers to pass temperance legislation. Although he held no public office during the 1850s, he remained active in Democratic Party politics. He attended the Benton County Democratic Convention in 1853 and befriended Democratic Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Stephen Douglas. He wrote Oregon’s motto, Alis volat propriis (She flies with her own wings), which lawmakers incorporated into the territorial seal in January 1854. Later that year, Thornton began calling for Oregon statehood, which Congress granted on February 14, 1859.

Thornton remained staunchly loyal to the Union during the Civil War. In May 1861, he attended a flag presentation ceremony in Lebanon, Oregon, where he asked “every man to stand by his country, in this hour of trial, without distinction of party.” He helped pass resolutions urging “all who cherish our free institutions, who love our country, who are devoted to the Union and Constitution, and who glory in the proud name of American citizen” to help strike down the rebellion. He helped organize at least two more Unionist rallies that spring. Then, on July 4, 1861, he refused to compromise with Confederates, instead calling for the “last dollar for the last gun, to be used by the last man, to subdue and punish this feudalism of the middle ages.”

Thornton joined the Republican Party during the war, and he won a seat in the state legislature in 1864. He served as president of the Linn County Sanitary Association, and in September 1864, he helped the state’s “patriot Ladies” organize a Sanitary Fair to raise money for the Union war effort. In October, he fiercely opposed Oregon’s Specific Contract Act, which allowed merchants to demand payment in gold. The law, Thornton argued, eroded faith in the federal government’s greenback currency and therefore undermined the war effort. He declared it an “almost treasonable act” and a “cruel and ungracious blow upon the Government.” With loyal Americans “engaged in a mortal struggle with the most gigantic rebellion that ever desolated a country,” he warned, this law would bring only “disaster and distress.”

Governor A. C. Gibbs called a special session of the state legislature in December 1865 to vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. Thornton supported and voted in favor of the amendment. After the session, however, he largely retreated from political life. In 1868, Thornton and his wife petitioned to adopt a four-year-old girl named Jessie Mickie Nicolai, whose parents had “willfully deserted and neglected to provide proper care” for her. A court granted their request on July 11, 1868, and they renamed the child Jessie Thornton. The family moved to Salem, Oregon, around 1872, and Thornton presided over temperance meetings and served as president of the State Teachers Association. He also served on the Board of Trustees for Willamette University from 1872 until 1888. His health declined in the 1880s, as he suffered from what one observer called a “complication of diseases incident to old age.” He died in Salem on February 5, 1888, and was buried in Lee Mission Cemetery.

Image: Jesse Quinn Thornton (courtesy Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem Oregon)


Jesse Q. Thornton Organizes an Anti-Abolition Meeting

Obituary of Jesse Q. Thornton

Name:Thornton, Jesse Quinn
Alternative names:
  • UVA (Union)
  • Civilian
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Augusta County, VA
UVA Begin Year:1833
UVA End Year:1835
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1810-08-24
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Point Pleasant, WV
Death date:1888-02-05
Death place:Salem, OR
Causes of death:
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Thornton, Jesse Quinnparent ofThornton, Jessie Mickie
Thornton, Nancy Mickeywife ofThornton, Jesse Quinn

1810, 1820, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 United States Federal Censuses, available from; Session 11 of the University of Virginia Faculty Minutes, September 1, 1834 – July 4, 1835, Jefferson’s University: The Early Life; Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia, Session of 1833-34 (Charlottesville, VA: Watson & Tompkins, 1834); Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia, Session of 1834-35 (Charlottesville, VA: Moseley & Tompkins, 1835); Jesse Quinn Thornton, Oregon and California in 1848, Vols. I and II (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1849); Daily Commercial Bulletin (St. Louis, MO), 1 June 1836; The Liberator, 13 August 1836; Staunton Spectator, 29 March 1838; Weekly Oregon Statesman, 20 June 1851, 9 April 1853, 27 May 1861, 3 June 1861, 8 July 1861, 11 December 1865, 25 February 1870, 24 May 1871; The Albany Journal, 12 March 1864; Morning Oregonian, 1 September 1864; Statesman Journal, 7 February 1888.